With her critically praised performances as Marvel spy Black Widow in the “Avengers” franchise and the chemically fueled telekinetic warrior in “Lucy,” Scarlett Johansson is quickly becoming the action genre’s go-to leading lady.
In the new science-fiction crime drama “Ghost in the Shell,” Johansson ups the ante as a terrorist-thwarting, hacker-smashing cyborg called The Major, who struggles to cope with her existence in a limbo between woman and machine while thwarting criminals both virtual and domestic.
Based on a wildly popular Japanese comic book series of the same name, the Rupert Sanders-directed movie came under fire for casting Johansson as a character depicted as Asian in the comics and animated films in 1995, 2004 and 2015. When asked about the controversy surrounding the “whitewashing” of The Major, the original animated film’s director Mamoru Oshii dismissed the criticism, telling IGN that Johansson was “the best possible” choice.
“What issue could there possibly be with casting her?” he told IGN via e-mail. “The Major is a cyborg and her physical form is an entirely assumed one. The name ‘Motoko Kusanagi’ and her current body are not her original name and body, so there is no basis for saying that an Asian actress must portray her. Even if her original body (presuming such a thing existed) were a Japanese one, that would still apply.”
Controversy aside, “Ghost in the Shell” is a visually dazzling work of sci-fi art that combines intricate practical effects, costumes and set pieces, created by Weta Workshop in New Zealand, with slick computer animated backdrops for a cyberpunk portrait of future Southeast Asia that straddles the tangible and intangible worlds.
The film also co-stars Michael Pitt, Pilou Asbaek, Takeshi Kitano, Chin Han, Rila Fukushima and Juliette Binoche. For more on “Ghost in the Shell,” check out my interview with Scarlett Johansson below:
David Onda: Beneath all the special effects and dazzling action sequences, what was the story you were excited to tell with “Ghost in the Shell”?
Scarlett Johansson: This character is living a very unique experience in that she’s a human brain in an entirely machinate body, and she has these two sides of herself—this tactical operative, an existence that’s almost been kind of chosen for her, and it’s driven by this past that she thinks that she had, to avenge this past that she thinks that she had; and then there’s the ghost or spirit soul that’s trying to catch her attention and lead her down this path of self-discovery. It’s just a complex inner-life that she has, and that’s what was so compelling about taking on the challenge of this role.
Onda: As The Major, you walk a fine line between human and robot. How did you find the sweet spot between both in this character?
Johansson: You go far in one direction and then you kind of pare it back. It was always important to have some physical presence that was not exactly human, but this character’s almost imperceptibly mechanical. You see her and you’re like, “It’s something else, but she’s the top of the line.” I just started to think about the mind-body disconnect–what it would be to have your brain kind of have to tell your body something and be aware of that process. What is The Major seeing? What is she looking at? She sees what we see, but there’s gotta be information in front of that. There’s always something in her brain, and she’s always connected—all these different things that give her a different physicality than you or I.
Onda: I get uncomfortable if even my sock is too tight, and you’re wearing this…
Johansson: [laughs] A tight sock! That is uncomfortable.
Onda: It’s rough, right? Tell me about filming action sequences while wearing this skintight, full-body costume.
Johansson: I didn’t even wear socks! You know, my costume is sort of like a wetsuit that just requires a bit more talcum powder and an extra person to put it on. It wasn’t so bad. It’s made of a thick silicon, and it actually made it less painful to get dragged around the set by a cable or whatever was going on on any particular day. I’d rather have my suit shredded than my actual body, so it wasn’t so bad.
Onda: If you were watching “Ghost in the Shell” with an audience and could point out some of the little things you love about it that they might not notice otherwise, what would you point out?
Johansson: There’s a lot of attention to detail that I saw on set. We filmed in the streets of the Kowloon District in Hong Kong. Look at how everybody’s dressed. There’s this really exciting—it’s almost like a city built on top of a city, and a culture mixed with some other culture. Everybody just looks so unique. I would tell the audience to pay attention to all of the background artists. All of the sets are so dimensional. Living in them for weeks at a time, I would notice all kinds of stuff. “When did that crazy signage get there?” or “I didn’t realize that person had a whole plastic face painted on them.” All kinds of crazy stuff.
“Ghost in the Shell” opens in theaters everywhere Friday, March 31. Click here for more information or to order tickets through Fandango.